Aristotle | Metaphysics



Aristotle (384–322 BC)
Aristotle (384–322 BC)

1. Aristotle | Metaphysics

Metaphysics (τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά, things after the ones about the natural world; Latin: Metaphysica) is one of the principal works of Aristotle,

in which he develops the doctrine that he refers to sometimes as Wisdom, sometimes as First Philosophy, and sometimes as Theology.

It is one of the first major works of the branch of western philosophy known as Metaphysics.

It is a compilation of various texts treating abstract subjects, notably Being, different kinds of causation, form and matter, the existence of mathematical objects and the cosmos.

The word Metaphysics appears to have been coined by the 1st century AD editor who assembled various small selections of Aristotle's works to the treatise we know by the name Metaphysics.

2. Overview

The Metaphysics is considered to be one of the greatest philosophical works.

Its influence on the Greeks, the Muslim philosophers, the scholastic philosophers and even writers such as Dante was immense.

It consists essentially of a criticism of Plato's theory of forms which Aristotle had studied as Plato's pupil at the Academy in Athens, with its dialectic method of definition that was unsuited to account for matter or change.

The physical method of Democritus and the atomists, on the other hand, engaged a scientific method to facts and problems, but no direct inquiry into the nature of definitions.

This reduced the essence of things to material configurations, with a chain of causal necessities depending ultimately on chance.

Aristotle sought to combine the virtues of these 2 methods:

His Metaphysics is directed against unified systems like the dialectic idealism of Plato, which reduces philosophy to mathematics, or the materialism of Democritus, which reduces it to physics.

His worldview is rooted in an analysis of natural language, common sense, and the observations gathered from the natural sciences.

The result is a synthesis of the naturalism of empirical science, with a critical enquiry into language, ontology and epistemology that informed the Western intellectual tradition for more than a thousand years.

At the heart of the book lie 3 questions:

  1. What is existence, and what sorts of things exist in the world?
  2. How can things continue to exist, and yet undergo the change we see about us in the natural world?
  3. And how can this world be understood?

By the time Aristotle was writing, the tradition of Greek philosophy was only 200 years old.

It had begun with the efforts of thinkers in the Greek world to theorize about the common structure that underlies the changes we observe in the natural world.

 2 contrasting theories, those of Heraclitus and Parmenides, were an important influence on both Plato and Aristotle.

Heraclitus emphasized the constantly changing nature of apparent reality.

By contrast, Parmenides argued that we can reach certain conclusions by means of Reason alone, making no use of the senses.

What we acquire through the process of Reason is fixed, unchanging and eternal. The world is not made up of a variety of things in constant flux, but of one single Truth or Reality.

Plato's theory of forms is a synthesis of these 2 views:

Given, any object that changes is in an imperfect state. Then, the form of each object we see in this world is an imperfect reflection of the perfect form of the object.

For example, Plato claimed a chair may take many forms, but in the perfect world there is only one perfect form of chair.

Aristotle encountered the theory of forms when he studied at the Academy, which he joined at the age of about 18 in the 360s BCE but its conception in the Metaphysics is re-elaborated.

Aristotle thought that in every change there is something which persists (for example, Socrates), and something else which did not exist before, but comes into existence as a result of the change (musical Socrates).

To explain how Socrates comes to be born (since he did not exist before he was born) Aristotle says that it is matter (hyle) that underlies the change.

The matter has the form of Socrates imposed on it to become Socrates himself.

Thus all the things around us, all substances, are composites of 2 radically different things: form and matter.

This doctrine is sometimes known as Hylomorphism (from the Greek words for matter and form).

3. Treatises

Subsequent to the arrangement of Aristotle's works by scholars at Alexandria in the 1st century CE, a number of his treatises were referred to as τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά (ta meta ta physika; literally, the writings after the Physics).

This is the origin of the title for collection of treatises now known as Aristotle's Metaphysics.

Some have interpreted the expression τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά to imply that the subject of the work goes beyond that of Aristotle's Physics or that it is meta-theoretical in relation to the Physics.

But others believe that τὰ μετὰ τὰ φυσικά referred simply to the work's place in the canonical arrangement of Aristotle's writings, which is at least as old as Andronicus of Rhodes or even Hermippus of Smyrna.

Within the Aristotelian Corpus itself, the metaphysical treatises are referred to as τὰ περὶ τῆς πρώτης φιλοσοφίας (literally, the writings concerning first philosophy);

First Philosophy was what Aristotle called the subjects of Metaphysics. (He called the study of nature or natural philosophy second philosophy (Metaphysics 1037a15).)

It is notoriously difficult to specify the date at which Aristotle wrote these treatises as a whole or even individually.

In the manuscripts, books are referred to by Greek letters.

The 2nd book was given the title little alpha, apparently because it appears to have nothing to do with the other books (and, very early, it was supposed not to have been written by Aristotle) or, although this is less likely, because of its shortness.

This, then, disrupts the correspondence of letters to numbers, as book 2 is little alpha, book 3 is beta, and so on.

For many scholars, it is customary to refer to the books by their letter names:

Thus book 1 is called Alpha (Α); 2, little alpha (α); 3, Beta (Β); 4, Gamma (Γ); 5, Delta (Δ); 6, Epsilon (Ε); 7, Zeta (Ζ); 8, Eta (Η); 9, Theta (Θ); 10, Iota (Ι); 11, Kappa (Κ); 12, Lambda (Λ); 13, Mu (Μ); 14, Nu (Ν).

The order in which the books were written is not known; their arrangement is due to later editors.

Based on a careful study of the content and of the cross-references within them, W. D. Ross concluded that books A, B, Γ, E, Z, H, Θ, M, N, and I form a more or less continuous work, while the remaining books α, Δ, Κ and Λ were inserted into their present locations by later editors.

However, Ross cautions that books A, B, Γ, E, Z, H, Θ, M, N, and I — with or without the insertion of the others — do not constitute a complete work.

In the 20th century 2 general editions have been produced by W. D. Ross (1924) and by W. Jaeger (1957). Editing the Metaphysics has become an open issue in works and studies of the new millennium.

4. Summary

Books I–VI:

1) Book I or Alpha outlines first philosophy, which is a knowledge of the first principles or causes of things.

The wise are able to teach because they know the why of things, unlike those who only know that things are a certain way based on their memory and sensations.

Because of their knowledge of first causes and principles, they are better fitted to command, rather than to obey.

Book Alpha also surveys previous philosophies from Thales to Plato, especially their treatment of causes.

2) Book II or little alpha:

The purpose of this chapter is to address a possible objection to Aristotle's account of how we understand first principles and thus acquire wisdom.

Aristotle replies that the idea of an infinite causal series is absurd, and thus there must be a first cause which is not itself caused.

This idea is developed later in book Lambda, where he develops an argument for the existence of God.

3) Book III or Beta lists the main problems or puzzles (ἀπορία aporia) of philosophy.

4) Book IV or Gamma:

Chapters 2 and 3 argue for its status as a subject in its own right.

The rest is a defence of

(a) What we now call the principle of contradiction, the principle that it is not possible for the same proposition to be (the case) and not to be (the case),

(b) What we now call the principle of excluded middle: tertium non datur — there cannot be an intermediary between contradictory statements.

5) Book V or Delta (philosophical lexicon) is a list of definitions of about 30 key terms such as cause, nature, one, and many.

6) Book VI or Epsilon has 2 main concerns:

Aristotle is first concerned with a hierarchy of the sciences.

As we know, a science can be productive, practical or theoretical.

Because theoretical sciences study being or beings for their own sake—for example, Physics studies beings that can be moved - and do not have a target (τέλος, end or goal; τέλειος, complete or perfect) beyond themselves, they are superior.

The study of being about being, or First Philosophy, is superior to all the other theoretical sciences because it is concerned the ultimate causes of all reality, not just the secondary causes of a part of reality.

Books VII–IX: Zeta, Eta, and Theta

The Middle Books are generally considered the core of the Metaphysics.

VII: Zeta

Book Zeta begins with the remark that 'Being' has many senses.

The purpose of philosophy is to understand being.

The primary kind of being is what Aristotle calls substance. What substances are there, and are there any substances besides perceptible ones?

Aristotle considers 4 candidates for substance:

a) the 'essence' or 'what it was to be a thing'
b) the Platonic universal,
c) the genus to which a substance belongs
d) the substratum or 'matter' which underlies all the properties of a thing.

He dismisses the idea that matter can be substance, for if we eliminate everything that is a property from what can have the property, we are left with something that has no properties at all.

Such 'ultimate matter' cannot be substance.

Separability and 'this-ness' are fundamental to our concept of substance.

Chapters 4–12 are devoted to Aristotle's own theory that essence is the criterion of substantiality.

The essence of something is what is included in a secundum se ('according to itself') account of a thing, i.e. which tells what a thing is by its very nature.

You are not musical by your very nature. But you are a human by your very nature. Your essence is what is mentioned in the definition of you.

Chapters 13–15 consider, and dismiss, the idea that substance is the universal or the genus, and are mostly an attack on the Platonic theory of Ideas. Aristotle argues that if genus and species are individual things, then different species of the same genus contain the genus as individual thing, which leads to absurdities. Moreover, individuals are incapable of definition.

Chapter 17 takes an entirely fresh direction, which turns on the idea that substance is really a cause.


Book Eta consists of a summary of what has been said so far (i.e., in Book Zeta) about substance, and adds a few further details regarding difference and unity.

IX: Theta

Theta sets out to define potentiality and actuality.

Chapters 1–5 discuss potentiality. We learn that this term indicates the potential (δύναμις) of something to change:

Potentiality is a principle of change in another thing or in the thing itself about other.

In Chapter 6 Aristotle turns to actuality.

We can only know actuality through observation or analogy;

thus as that which builds is to that which is capable of building, so is that which is awake to that which is asleep...or that which is separated from matter to matter itself.

Actuality is the completed state of something that had the potential to be completed.

The relationship between actuality and potentiality can be thought of as the relationship between form and matter, but with the added aspect of time.

Actuality and potentiality are diachronic (across time) distinctions, whereas form and matter are synchronic (at one time) distinctions.

Books X–XIV:

10) Book X or Iota: Discussion of unity, one and many, sameness and difference.

11) Book XI or Kappa: Briefer versions of other chapters and of parts of the Physics.

12) Book XII or Lambda: Further remarks on beings in general, first principles, and God or Gods. This book includes Aristotle's famous description of the unmoved mover, the most divine of things observed by us, as the thinking of thinking.

13-14) Books XIII and XIV, or Mu and Nu: Philosophy of mathematics, in particular how numbers exist.

5. Style

Many scholars believe that Aristotle's works as we have them today are little more than lecture notes.

Many of his works are extremely compressed and thus baffling to beginners.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Metaphysics

Ibn Sina (Avicenna), one of the greatest Medieval Islamic philosophers, said that he had read the Metaphysics of Aristotle 40 times, but still did not understand it.

Only later, after having read al-Farabi's, Purposes of the Metaphysics of Aristotle, did he understand Aristotle's book.

In the 19th century, with the rise of textual criticism, the Metaphysics was examined anew.

Critics, noting the wide variety of topics and the seemingly illogical order of the books, concluded that it was actually a collection of shorter works thrown together haphazardly.

6. Translations and influence

With the fall of Rome in the latter half of the 5th century, knowledge of, and access to Metaphysics was lost to the non-Greek speaking world.

The translation of Metaphysics into Arabic in Baghdad in the 9th century led to a rediscovery of Aristotle's work in the Arabic speaking world.

These Arabic translations derived from early Syrian translations from the original Greek.

The flourishing of Arabic Aristotelian scholarship reached its peak with the work of Ibn Rushd (Latinized: Averroes), whose extensive writings on Aristotle's work led to his later designation as The Commentator by future generations of scholars.

Maimonides wrote the Guide to the Perplexed in the 12th century, to demonstrate the compatibility of Aristotelian science with Biblical revelation.

The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) facilitated the discovery and delivery of many original Greek manuscripts back to the European centres of learning.

Finally, after over 700 years of obscurity, the work could finally be studied in the original and properly translated into Latin.

One of the first Latin translations was made by William of Moerbeke.

William's translations are literal, and were intended faithfully to reflect the Greek word order and style.

These formed the basis of the commentaries of Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus.

They were also used by modern scholars for Greek editions, as William had access to Greek manuscripts that are now lost.